The St Kilda Shawl

About 18 months ago Jane Cooper told me about a then-secret project to collect the fleece of Boreray sheep from all over the UK and produce yarns with it. I was asked whether I would be willing to design a shawl using the lace weight, which was to be a blend of Soay and Boreray fibre, and to be called the St Kilda lace weight.

boreray-st-kilda14
The island of Boreray, an outpost of the St Kilda group
maps - St Kilda and Boreray
On the left, a map of Scotland, with the Outer Hebrides in red and enlarged. St Kilda is circled. On the right, St Kilda showing the islands of Soay and Boreray and the village of St Kilda itself.

Boreray is one of the islands of the St Kilda group. St Kilda itself was inhabited until the 1930s, and still is home to two rare breeds of sheep, the Soay and the Boreray. Both are old breeds, dual coated, with a fine, soft undercoat and longer, thicker guard hairs. And as with all ancient breeds, the fineness of the fleece varies hugely within and between fleeces.

Sheep by St Kilda village in the 1920s.
Sheep by St Kilda village in the 1920s.
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Soay sheep grazing by the deserted village street.
BorerayRam
A Boreray ram.

St Kilda has long held the imagination. The jagged rocks rise straight out of the sea, looking like the story book dragon’s lair! (I have seen them from the deck of a ship, but not landed.)

The island of Boreray.
The island of Boreray.

The wonder is that people ever lived there, so far from any other land. But there is evidence of habitation going back to the Iron Age at least. The population seems to have thrived until the early Nineteenth Century, when well-meaning, but inept, folk from the mainland UK came to ‘educate’ the islanders. The ‘progressive’ ideas they brought were not only useless on the island, they made the islanders’ lives worse. For example, the islanders had always built their houses as right angles to the street, giving shelter to the door. But the new, so-called better, way was to build them with the front door to the street. This meant the houses were colder and more smoky, with all the ill health that brought…

St Kilda village today, from the hills behind it, which are still grazed by Soay sheep.  The buildings to the left are the modern base.
St Kilda village today, from the hills behind it, which are still grazed by Soay sheep. The buildings to the left are the modern base.
Islanders outside their 'new' houses.
Islanders outside their ‘new’ houses.

The women of St Kilda used the fleece of the local sheep for knitting and weaving. The coarser fibres were used to spin yarn for weaving into blankets and shawls.

Hand tinted photo of island women.  Notice that none have shoes.  The one on the far right has straw tied round her legs for warmth, and the one next to her has a pair of trousers or long johns under her skirt.  You can see the very bottom of both under the hem of the skirts.
Hand tinted photo of island women. Notice that none have shoes. The one on the far right has straw tied round her legs for warmth, and the one next to her has a pair of trousers or long johns under her skirt. You can see the very bottom of both under the hem of the skirts.

The softer fibres were spun into yarn for knitting underwear. (Note that none of the women or children wore shoes, and therefore, no socks. Men would have worn course socks in their sea boots.) Most other clothing was bartered for, in return for fish, sea-birds or their eggs.

Women knitting.  Note that the yarn is light coloured from the lighter-coloured, finer,  undercoat.
Women knitting. Note that the yarn is light coloured from the lighter-coloured, finer, undercoat.

There are pictures of St Kilda women using both a standard sloping bed wheel, and also a cross between a great wheel and a spindle. I suspect some inventive husband or son built it to make spinning quicker and easier for their womenfolk.

A day trip to St Kilda for the gentry was popular in the later Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.  Here a group of well-dressed trippers are posed watching an islander spin.
A day trip to St Kilda for the gentry was popular in the later Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. Here a group of well-dressed trippers are posed watching an islander spin. In another, less sharp, photo taken at the same time, in a more natural grouping, a man is sitting on the step carding the fleece.
The cross between a spindle and a great wheel!
The cross between a spindle and a great wheel!

All St Kilda women wore shawls, often woven into plaids. I took this as the starting point for my design, and tried to evoke the over-and-under of the weave in the pattern of holes. I wanted something which could be used with different yarns, too, and so top-down, starting in the centre back, seemed the best idea. This could be fitted well with the ‘woven’ look – and added bonus!

St Kilda Shawl 1

We had no idea how far the yarn would go! It turned out that one ball made a good sized neckerchief, two a good sized shawl, and three a nice shawl with a border. I wanted a scarf in the pattern too, for folk who didn’t wear shawls. Again, there are several variations with the photographed sample being knitted up by Jane.

St Kilda Neckerchief B sm

St Kild Shawl 3

The first batch of yarn sold out very quickly.

Jane Cooper, who arragned the collection of the first batch of Boreray fleece, with a ball of the final product!
Jane Cooper, who arragned the collection of the first batch of Boreray fleece, with a ball of the final product!

However, the seed had been sewn, the breeders of Boreray contacted by Jane had realised there was a market for their fleece, and Sue Blacker of Blacker Yarns, was able to acquire more Boreray to make another batch. This time some Shetland was also added to the mix, and it looks as if this will become a regular, though limited line.

You can buy the pattern from Sue here.

St Kild Shawl 2

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20 thoughts on “The St Kilda Shawl

  1. I, too, normally lurk but I love the very idea of this project and the garments you’ve designed but I admit that I’m primarily stunned by the fact that THEY WORE NO SHOES!! I live in Cornwall and suffer from permanently cold feet – clearly I wouldn’t have survived on St Kilda!

  2. A gorgeous shawl and a wonderful blog post! Thank you so much for showing those photos! I bought the pattern today, and can’t wait to start knitting. The yarn is lovely and so nice to knit. But what a life those people lived – it’s difficult for me to imagine, even if I come from a climate that isn’t exactly mild and kind from September to May.

  3. Wonderful project and shawl. It’s so good to see the old breeds being valued once again. As for the shoes, I wonder if the women and children wore leather foot coverings in winter, perhaps with socks (called rivlins in Shetland). The photos would most likely have been taken by visitors in summer when shoes might well be missing.

    1. No – they were barefoot even in winter. Rivlins were worn here in Orkney (with a different name I can’t mind on at the moment) but there are pix of the St Kildan women in the snow with nothing on their feet…

  4. What a fascinating read – how the St Kildans must have longed for their island when they left despite all the comforts of their new lives. I have two balls of St Kilda Laceweight Borerary/Soay. They have been patiently waiting for me to knit them into something beautiful – your pattern! As far as their bare feet go – many Sherpas did not wear shoes in the now, so perhaps the St Kildan’s feet were just used to the cold?

  5. What a marvelous and beneficial adventure! The shawl is so unique (can’t wait to see the pattern!). I was taken by it all but particularly the Kilda wheel’s being a combination of a treadle wheel and a spindle wheel! I look forward to every post of your blog.

  6. Just came over from Yarn lover, this was so interesting to learn about the ladies that once lived on St Kilda, i couldnt believe they didnt wear shoes it must have been so difficult in the winter, the shawl is so beautiful.
    Sue

  7. Just bought the pattern and the yarn! I am delighted to be in possession of such precious fiber and can’t wait to cast on. Thank you so much for your history and photos!

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